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Uptowners Fear Rise in Quality-of-Life Offenses Under NYPD Pilot Program

By Lindsay Armstrong | May 1, 2015 1:12pm | Updated on May 4, 2015 8:56am
 Deputy Inspector Chris Morello said that the pilot program will allow officers more time to engage with the community.
Deputy Inspector Chris Morello said that the pilot program will allow officers more time to engage with the community.
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DNAinfo/Nigel Chiwaya

WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — A pilot program aimed at getting officers more involved in the community is set to roll out in the 34th Precinct — creating some concern among locals who worry that the time spent on neighborhood engagement will take away from dedicated patrols in areas like parks.

The precinct was picked as one of four to test the patrol model introduced by Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, which will see officers spending dedicated time away from responding to 911 calls and instead meeting with local residents and community members.

“You will get to know the officers on your street, and they will be there day in and day out,” Deputy Inspector Chris Morello of the 34th Precinct told residents at a precinct council meeting Wednesday.

However, locals feared that the reorganization — which will move officers away from patrols like parks and impact zones in order to free up other officers for community engagement — could present problems in those assigned areas.

Under the pilot, small groups of officers will be assigned to patrol one of four sectors within the precinct, Morello explained. They will spend about half of their time responding to emergency calls, and the rest of their shifts engaging with the neighborhood, including attending community meeting, visiting local schools or following up with residents about problems in a particular area, he noted.

"The whole idea behind this program is to get away from each officer being so specialized and instead to have all officers trying to tackle all problems,” Morello said. 

In order to free up these officers for community engagement, the precinct will pull other officers off specialized units including parks, schools and street narcotics enforcement so they can respond to emergency calls.

Residents at the precinct meeting worried that pulling officers away from these units could lead to an increase in quality-of-life issues — like illegal barbecues and off-leash dogs — particularly as the busy summer months approach.

“I’m concerned with this pilot program,” said Peter Levy, who helps manage the dog run in Fort Tryon Park and came to the meeting with complaints about cyclists who speed along the park’s hilly paths despite the fact that bike riding is prohibited.

“I think Officer Polster did a great job in Fort Tryon Park,” he said, referencing one of the 34th Precinct’s parks officers who will be reassigned under the pilot. “I’m concerned if this program is going to protect my interest, which is Fort Tryon.”

Other residents spoke about past park problems including hookah smoking and motorized bikes on park paths.

“Who is going to patrol the parks now? We all know we don’t have any PEP [Parks Enforcement Patrol] officers up here,” said Denise Lauffer, a Fort George resident with a local dog-walking business.  

Morello said that although there will no longer be a parks unit, officers would regularly patrol the green spaces.

“Before we had two officers assigned to parks, but let me ask you, is that really enough in this neighborhood?” he said. “Under the new program, you’re going to see more officers going into Highbridge Park, Inwood Hill Park, all of the parks.”

The overall number of patrol cars during busy shifts would increase from five to 12, Morello said, and the precinct will receive new resources like tablet computers and smartphones, allowing officers to look up arrest records and run warrants on-site.

Nancy Preston of Moving Forward Unidos, which focuses on quality-of-life issues in Inwood, said the group also had some reservations about the changes.

“The conditions unit has done a great job with respect to noise and other complaints, so we’re concerned,” she said. “Is it going to get better or get worse?”

Morello said he felt that the new model would allow the precinct to address quality-of-life offenses that frequently come up at precinct meetings by helping officers gain a sense of ownership for their sectors.

“Let’s say you call 311 a lot because of noise outside of your building from kids drinking,” he said. “Maybe now you don’t call 311. Instead you talk to the officers in your sector who say, ‘We can go by and talk to these kids. We can take care of this.’”

The deputy inspector did not have an exact date for implementation, but said he expected for the changes to take effect in mid-May.